Canadiens’ Xhekaj plays ‘most complete game’ but should continue building base

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stayed hot, stopping 29 of the 31 shots he faced and Jeff Skinner scored again against his favourite team, his 18th in 21 meetings, as the Buffalo Sabres took down the Montreal Canadiens 3-2.

MONTREAL — This was Arber Xhekaj as we’ve come to know him — physically imposing and intimidating, offensively poised and dangerous, noticeable on nearly every shift and playing right up against his ceiling — and it’s no coincidence. 

It’s not as if the game Xhekaj played against the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday came out of nowhere. It may feel like that because we haven’t quite seen him play one like it this season, but there was a steady build towards this one, with his floor being established board by board through far less noticeable performances that immediately preceded it. 

Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis accurately referred to it as Xhekaj’s “most complete game.”

The player felt it was coming.

“I think I’m putting some games together here,” Xhekaj said afterwards, alluding to a sequence of solid performance leading to this strong one.

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That’s been the goal in the 23-year-old’s development — to string performances together, to find some consistency at this level after having to iron out some defensive flaws and find a way to better straddle the line between confidence and cockiness over 17 games spent in the American Hockey League from early-December to late January — and he’s advancing towards realizing it. 

The swagger Xhekaj played with on Wednesday should only edge him closer.

Just as he had strung together games to get to it, Xhekaj pieced together shifts in this one.

“I think he built his game tonight from the start,” St. Louis said. “You never know what your first shift’s going to be like, you never know what it’s going to bring you, and I think if you’re alert from the start you’re able to build your game. I think that’s what he did tonight.”

Xhekaj played three solid shifts before blasting home his third goal of the season on his fourth. 

With confidence building, he bullied Casey Mittlestadt with two hits on the same early-second-period sequence to respond to a questionable hit the Sabres forward put on Montreal’s Jake Evans, and then he erased Dylan Cozens between both benches.

Xhekaj annihilated Zemgus Girgensons 12 minutes later.

And the way Xhekaj played at both ends of the third was a big part of a strong — but ultimately unsuccessful — push the Canadiens had to tie the game 3-3. He defended the rush attentively, transitioned the puck perfectly to offence, carried play through the neutral zone and helped create the most dangerous looks Sabres goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukonen faced in the frame to cap a night that saw him play 18:52 (or more than he has in an NHL game since Nov. 11).

When asked to evaluate where it ranked over his short, 76-game career, Xhekaj said, “It was one of the better ones, for sure.”

It should propel him forward.

“Tonight, the way he built his game was building his swagger,” said St. Louis. 

It was right after he explained what he saw from his vantage point behind the bench.

“He’s a physical player, we saw that tonight,” said St. Louis. “He actually has some good offensive instinct, and you saw that. His touches were really good offensively. And the hardest part for a defenceman in this league is to defend, like how to defend the rush, and I feel like he’s getting better at these things. He’s finding more consistency at these things. He still plays into his strength tonight, but we still expect that consistency on the defensive side of things. He’s giving us that, and tonight is one of those games that we know he’s capable of. It’s not an easy league, it’s hard to repeat that all time. For young players, it’s finding consistency, and we’re working on that.”

It’s a process that’s been underway for several Canadiens players this season, with all of them experiencing ups and downs at different moments.

Juraj Slafkovsky and Cole Caufield are two who’ve taken some of the biggest steps in that process, but they tumbled back a bit on this night. The former was serving one of three penalties he took in the game when Jeff Skinner scored Buffalo’s second goal, and the latter committed the turnover that led to Alex Tuch’s winning goal for the Sabres.

Slafkovsky and Caufield will probably bounce back quickly. Perhaps even on Thursday night in Pittsburgh, against the Penguins, because both players gradually built up their games and won’t have all that undone by one off-performance.

Xhekaj’s game won’t be cemented by one really strong one either, but it helps that it didn’t just come out of the blue.

Xhekaj worked his way up to it after his rocky start to the season, the shoulder injury that followed on Nov. 16, and the humbling experience of going down to the AHL.

It wasn’t reasonable to expect the player to step back into the NHL and immediately show the way he did on this night, and it’s unreasonable to think each game that follows this one will look the same.

But if Xhekaj can manage to avoid dipping below the floor he’s established on his way to playing his best, he’ll replicate these types of games more often over the final 26 contests of the Canadiens season.

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